From oversize and caps to suit and palace: Alcaraz’s 20’s are different from Nadal’s

los 20 de Alcaraz
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NEW YORK – Life is faster today than it was 20 years ago, but Carlos Alcaraz’s 20’s are also faster than Rafael Nadal’s. The world number one is embracing his fame and his growing status as a “fashion icon” in a way that the 14-time Roland Garros champion never did, much less in the early days of his career.

Nadal shied away from phrases such as the following.

“As an athlete, it is not every day we get to dress up, but there are special occasions and it feels good to show up looking and feeling great.“

“I think as I have grown up, I definitely have more appreciation for a well-tailored suit.”

These are the usual public relations phrases inserted unnaturally into the mouths of the protagonists. Alcaraz doesn’t talk like that, but it’s what you do when you’re sponsored by Louis Vuitton and taken to an 18th century palace in Paris for a stylish and groundbreaking photo and video shoot.

Vuitton’s “Alcaraz collection” will hit shops on 31 August, but the player, or so he told fashion publications, is waiting for Pharrell Williams’ collection, his first as the brand’s artistic director, to hit the windows.

“He’s an icon – is there anything he can’t do?,” Alcaraz said of Williams. “Like everyone else, I’m excited to see what he does at Louis Vuitton.”

Excited. Alcaraz had already hinted at that when he was introduced in July as a brand ambassador, joining American actress Zendaya and South Korean artist J-Hope.

“When I hear Louis Vuitton, I think of elegance and the best fashion brand today. I remember a long time ago, when I was younger, when I saw people with Louis Vuitton bags and clothes, I always wanted to be one of them. I’m really proud of it. It’s a dream for me to be part of the Louis Vuitton family now.”

Alcaraz for Louis Vuitton // LV

A dream that Nadal did not have at that age. Seventeen years ago, with Nadal also in his 20s, like the Alcaraz of today, “People” magazine approached the Mallorcan’s team with a proposal: to appear in the 2006 issue as one of the 50 “most attractive men in the world”.

The answer was “no”. On the one hand, Nadal felt he was a young man and not a man, even though the 2005 Roland Garros title already gave him that status. On the other hand, the image and communication strategy of those early years was aimed at Nadal transmitting youth, energy and freshness.

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Perfect contrast with Federer, five years older and akin to elegance and classicism, to a more stately image. The contrast enhanced both of them.Alcaraz, who this Tuesday night, with German Dominik Koepfer as rival, debuts at the U.S. Open starting the defence of the 2022 title, does not have that need. Partly because such a contrast is not possible. Neither Novak Djokovic is stately and elegant, nor have his closest generational rivals achieved the consistency and persistence that both Federer and Nadal had in shaping a historic rivalry.

Surrounded by spectators fascinated by his game and personality and rivals still seeking to decipher him, the paradox of the Alcaraz at the centre of the universe is that he is actually quite alone. He is a category in his own right and there is nothing to match him. Strictly speaking, neither does Djokovic, who at 20 was light years away from the Alcaraz of today.

Alcaraz’s own certainty that he is a unique phenomenon was evident in a recent conversation he had with Martina Navratilova on the Tennis Channel. The former number one, perhaps the greatest female player of all time, asked him about a tattoo he got on his arm, and Alcaraz explained that he combined both the 2022 US Open title and the number one ranking. He laughingly added that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to add a tattoo for every Grand Slam title because he might run out of space on his arm. “It would be a big problem to solve,” he said, and burst out laughing.

Nadal, incapable throughout his career of theorising about the eventual saturation of tattoos on an arm in the face of too many titles, still had traces of shyness in 2006. Depending on the moment, he could appear nervous, flighty and with his eyes glued to the floor, although by that point he was already a showman at press conferences, where he used his rudimentary English to amuse and amuse. The Alcaraz of 2023 is anything but shy. He loves tennis, of course he does, but he loves the show too, he is a star in and out of stadiums with a sense of showmanship and ego enjoyment that Federer and Nadal never achieved at the same level.

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He was born in El Palmar, Murcia, but his soul seems Californian, New Yorker. He has the attitudes of a philo-American, a show-loving American on a level that Nadal never allowed himself. He embraces the oversize look and hats, and like many young people today, he enjoys the possibilities offered by the mobile phone. It’s very natural for him to be photographed, to film himself, to talk in front of the camera. The Nadal of 17 years ago did not. Partly because of the kind of education he received from his parents and his uncle Toni, but above all because it was a different world: the mobile phone was not the measure of everything, nor were social networks.

Alcaraz is a product of the third decade of the third millennium. He understands perfectly and loves without qualms the logic of public exposure and business. Nadal, head of an economic empire, lived public exposure and business with more restraint. What in him was often a crooked mouth and a raised left eyebrow, in Alcaraz goes from a smile to a laugh.


Carlos Alcaraz and Eric Babolat in New York

This week, as soon as he finished a training session with Italian Jannik Sinner at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Alcaraz rushed off to Manhattan to sign a contract extension with Babolat, the racquet he has been playing with since he was ten years old: he signed for seven more years under the pleased gaze of the company’s owner, Eric Babolat.

And just as Nadal had his own Babolat model, one with Alcaraz’s name on it is imminent.

“We’ve never had a racquet named after a player, but Rafa is so strong that we decided to make one. Maybe one day we will make one for Alcaraz, why not,” Babolat said in 2022 during an interview with CLAY in Paris.

It was just over a year ago, but it feels like a century: since then, Alcaraz has won the US Open, conquered the world number one ranking and this year Wimbledon. He has achieved, in just a handful of seasons, much more than any professional tennis player dares to dream of. And he’s just getting started.

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